Thursday, April 1, 2010

"The First Little Flower"

I am such a sucker for spring. I took a short walk in the garden this week, and my heart went all a-flutter to see nodding snowdrops, the magnolias just starting to bloom, and the daffodils up in full force. But I am not the only one at Clermont to feel this way.

After lonely months with the barren winter landscape and the wind howling down the Hudson River (and believe me, it does howl), Alice Livingston had a special place in her heart for spring. In her daughter Honoria's words, "She speant the winters here so to see the first little shoot and the first little flower really meant something to her."

It is sweet that as a mother, Alice encouraged her love of spring in her children as well. In her recollection, "The return of life in Nature, is hailed with great excitement by the children, and about this time they begin to talk of spring, in tones of mysterious joy."

It is no accident that Alice's favorite garden was the Spring Garden, an area to the south of the mansion, which she filled with early-blooming plants. This part of the house was ideal for nourishing early blooms, as the sweeping green bowl of land was sheltered from the wind and received enough sun to melt off the snow quickly in warming weather. She once wrote that she spent a great deal of time planning it out every year, each year making changes in an effort to get it perfect.

She selected plants that could "survive without covering," adding that she got "tired of litter and straw wrappings elsewhere before the spring comes, so this corner is kept free from them, and after much experiment I have found that there are plenty of desirable plants which flourish perfectly without the least protection." So eager was Alice to see spring bloom, that the remaining "litter" of straw that was needed to protect her fragile non-native plants was considered a misery to be avoided in this little haven.

As soon as the spring flowers were up, they were cut and brought into the house. The Lenten Hellebores were the first of these. "It is a great event with us when they arrive, and usually I place the flowers with some sprigs of boxwood, floating in a turqoise bowl."

Once a very young Honoria, eager to contribute, "came to me with pride, displaying the stumpiest of stems, a tiny violet bud. This she had discovered, in fact, literally unearthed from her own garden-lot, and as she placed it in my hand she asked me, with true childish confidence, to arrange it like the Lenten Roses--'floating in a bowl, Mother.'"

The familiarity of this story made me laugh! Hasn't everyone at some point received a single tiny flower from a child, eager to see it displayed in a vase? How do you arrange such a little thing? Alice, ever the concerned parent and flower arranging authority, settled upon a doll's tea cup a the appropriate vessel, and she proudly displayed her daughter's trophy.

Much later, in the late 1920s, Alice committed funds and forethought into increasing Clermont's spring floral display by expanding the Lilac Walk. The hill above her Spring Garden had been planted with a collection of purple and white lilacs since the early nineteenth century. But Alice added more traditional lilacs as well as a wide assortment of fancy French hybrids (we have the receipts in our collections showing these purchases).

Since then the lilac walk has become one of Clermont's defining features. Every May, the entire northern half of the grounds are filled with their smell (and the low hum of bees). Lilac bushes nearing 200 years of age tower over the path, while Alice's younger bushes (100 years old) nod just overhead. It is my favorite time of year, and a popular one for weddings too.

Around the same time, the peonies in the cutting garden begin to bloom. "This was the peony garden," announces Honoria, touring you through in our orientation video. These were a favorite flower for bouquets in the house. Today in Alice's honor we display faux peonies in the spring in the hallway, usually in the 18th century Chinese import porcelain punch bowl.

Soon after that come the mock orange bushes on the north (now those bring out the bees) and the whole cycle of flowers for the year really gets going.

When she grew up, Honoria liked the flowers as well. She was an active member of the nearby Germantown Garden Club and is still remembered fondly by several of the members. She always talked about these flowers with pleasure, but often as related to her mother. "That's a very old rose; she loved roses." I get the feeling that the flowers held as meaning to her not only for their own beauty, but for the joy they brought to Alice every spring when she was bidding a final goodbye to winter.

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